In the mid-1980s, the city of Columbus, Indiana, sponsored a competition to design a municipal parking lot with the goal of drawing greater attention to this omnipresent yet neglected feature of the landscape. “The amount of creativity, energy, and planning that goes into the design of… parking places, especially compared to other elements of the built environment, is miniscule,” noted the competition organizers, “Yet, in terms of their visual impact, their land usage, or any other measure, there is almost no other place of the public environment that people experience more in their daily lives.”
The winning entry, designed by Eric R. Kuhne & Associates, was selected from more than 130 entries. The design, which was never built, proposed to transform the parking lot into a civic plaza under a canopy of trees. The concept was inspired by European urban plazas – single spaces used for multiple activities: car parking, cultural activities, and marketplaces. I asked architect Eric Kuhne to discuss his winning design in an August 2012 interview.
So, what’s wrong with the typical parking lot?
Eric Kuhne: Single use: any singular use of urban land is a conceit that deprives the city of life on the street. Parking lots rob the city even more, as they have no life within them.
Why do you think parking lots are accepted eyesores? Why do we accept them as dead space, or merely as space to park our cars?
Kuhne: Owners and cities are responsible for the aesthetic paucity. Every city should have ordinances that require [things like] planting of one tree per car space; double rows of street trees around the perimeter; maintenance of ornamental lighting at night; provision of furniture around the sidewalk perimeter; allocation of space for street vendors; and severe taxes/penalties for unkempt lots.
How did your Columbus Carscape design propose to integrate parking into the life of the community?
Kuhne: We did everything just described. Paving was done with Hastings pavers in an ornamental pattern that treated the surface as an urban masonry carpet. Spacing of lights and trees were set up to accommodate marquees (tents) for festivals, markets, fairs, and events.
How do you see parking lots functioning without cars?
Kuhne: Landscaped plazas for the events of a city’s pageantry.
The Columbus Carscape project is categorized under “Gardens” on your website. Can you elaborate on the concept of parking lot as garden?
Kuhne: The design was inspired by the two great urban parks in the world, which are both in Paris: the Tuileries Gardens and Luxembourg Gardens. Both have geometric rows of trees that accommodate just about any festival, gathering, pageantry, fair, and spontaneous play. All have shade as their principle gift to the city. All provide a verdant bosque [or forest] of trees that take on the character of cathedral-like spaces once grown.
The Columbus Carscape competition was co-sponsored by a municipality, the city of Columbus. What role can the public sector play in rethinking and improving parking lots?
Kuhne: The city is the custodian of the public realm. All cities must treat any open space as parkland. It’s the trees that lift a vacant lot to elegance and civic providence.